Lindsay is a working actress and honors graduate of Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre: Film/TV.
Who Was Katharine Hepburn?
Katharine Hepburn was a star unlike any other. An upper-class Bryn Mawr graduate with the disciplined athleticism of a true tomboy, she was utterly uninterested in Hollywood glamour. Known for her casual slouchy style and independent spirit, Katharine Hepburn was an unyielding force with a mind of her own. Tough and assertive both onscreen and off, it seems the only man capable of taming her was the man who became her most famous onscreen partner, Spencer Tracy. The real-life love affair of Tracy and Hepburn has since become legendary, lasting for over 20 years and through nine films until Tracy's untimely death at the age of 67.
But even beyond her films with Tracy, Kate managed to conquer Hollywood on her own terms. She mastered comedies, dramas, and everything in between. Throughout her career, she won a record-breaking four Oscars for Best Actress (a record that still stands) and racked up 12 nominations in total. Enjoying an incredible career that lasted for decades, on this list alone you'll find films from the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, and '80s. If you have yet to see the real Kate Hepburn on screen, you're in for a treat.
A Note on This List's Order
I chose the order of my Katharine Hepburn top ten by considering each film's importance in Katharine’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evident by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Katharine Hepburn film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Katharine Hepburn Films
- The Philadelphia Story (1940)
- The Lion in Winter (1968)
- Bringing Up Baby (1938)
- The African Queen (1951)
- Holiday (1938)
- Stage Door (1937)
- Summertime (1955)
- On Golden Pond (1981)
- Little Women (1933)
- State of the Union (1948)
1. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The film that single-handedly revitalized Katharine’s career, this smart and sophisticated romantic comedy also provided Kate with one of her most iconic roles. She stars as Tracy Lord, a Philadelphia socialite who is days away from marrying her lower-class fiancé, George. But, Tracy’s wedding plans get seriously derailed when her ex-husband Dexter (Cary Grant) crashes her wedding along with a couple of tabloid journalists (played by Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey).
The Philadelphia Story is based on the successful Broadway play of the same name by Philip Barry (who actually wrote it with Kate in mind). After originating the role of Tracy on Broadway, Kate managed to buy the film rights to the play with the help of her friend, billionaire Howard Hughes. This gave the Hollywood bigwigs no choice but to cast her in the role of Tracy if they ever wanted to adapt the play for film.
Thanks to a string of flops, Kate had recently been dubbed “box office poison,” but this film’s success changed everything. Since Kate owned the film rights, this also gave her approval over the film’s director, screenwriter, and cast. For the director, she chose her good friend, George Cukor, with whom she had worked on several occasions.
Originally, Kate intended the role of Dexter to be played by Clark Gable and the role of tabloid journalist Mike to be played by Spencer Tracy (whom she had yet to work with). However, when both of her first choices proved to be unavailable, Kate turned to her frequent co-star, Cary Grant, to fill in as Dexter and MGM studio head Louis B. Meyer suggested Jimmy Stewart for the role of Mike (Stewart would later win a Best Actor Oscar for the role). The combination of Kate, Grant, and Stewart proved to be brilliant, with all three giving career-defining performances.
Surprisingly, The Philadelphia Story proved to be the last film Grant and Hepburn appeared in together, marking the end of a screen partnership that lasted through four films—three of which are on this list!
2. The Lion in Winter (1968)
Set in 1183, The Lion in Winter focuses on the events surrounding the Christmas court of King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) and his immensely dysfunctional family. Kate stars as the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife and queen, whom he has been keeping in prison since her last uprising ten years earlier. Henry, Eleanor, and their three sons (John, Richard, and Geoffrey) are temporarily reunited for the Christmas court, and no sooner are they together than the mind games begin as each family member makes their own bid for power in their own distinct way.
Based on the play by James Goldman (and adapted by him for the screen), The Lion in Winter features a bitingly clever script. The film won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Kate’s brilliant performance as the quick-witted Eleanor won her a third Oscar for Best Actress. However, in an unprecedented tie, Kate actually had to share her Best Actress Oscar with Barbra Streisand for her performance in Funny Girl. It remains the only time in Oscar history that such a tie has occurred in any actress category.
Kate was actually Peter O’Toole’s first choice to play Eleanor, but after the death of Spencer Tracy, O’Toole was concerned she would turn the part down. Instead, her response was simply, “Do it before I die.” However, Katharine made it clear from the very beginning that she wasn’t going to put up with the tardiness and late night carousing for which O'Toole was infamous.
No doubt intimidated by her, O’Toole dutifully obeyed her every command and in the end, Kate enjoyed working with Peter tremendously. She later claimed that his youthful energy helped restore her at a time when she really needed it most. For his part, O’Toole even ended up naming his daughter Kate, after Hepburn.
3. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Considered by many to be the definitive screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby is easily one of the fastest and funniest movies ever made. Kate plays the part of Susan Vance, a daffy heiress who meets paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) on a golf course and somehow manages to completely upend his entire life with her madcap impulses—partially by accident and partially by design.
Things only get more complicated as Susan begins to find more elaborate excuses to keep David by her side as long as possible (therefore preventing him from attending his wedding with the dull Miss Swallow). One of the first of these excuses is her “need” of help in transporting her new pet leopard, Baby, to her family’s country home in Connecticut. Once David reluctantly agrees to help, his life will never be the same.
Directed by Howard Hawks, Bringing Up Baby marks the second time Katharine starred opposite Cary Grant and the two played perfectly off of one another as the polar opposites, David and Susan. Original author Hagar Wilde adapted her own short story for the screen, along with screenwriter Dudley Nichols. They actually wrote the part of Susan with Katharine in mind and, indeed, no one else could have pulled off the fast-talking, overconfident, and impulsive Susan.
Hepburn and Grant ad-libbed frequently while filming and production often became delayed simply due to the uncontrollable fits of laughter the two kept falling into. In the original story, Baby was a black panther, but a reliable trained panther couldn’t be found. So, Baby was rewritten as a leopard and Nissa, a trained leopard who had been appearing on film for 8 years, was used instead.
To keep actor interactions with the leopard to a minimum, split screens and a puppet leopard were used for certain scenes. However, the scenes that featured Baby moving freely around Susan’s apartment were actually filmed with Katharine and Nissa in a modified cage, with the camera and sound equipment merely poking through the fencing.
For the most part, Katharine was pretty fearless around the leopard. Cary Grant, on the other hand, was absolutely terrified of her. Kate took it upon herself to torture him by throwing a stuffed leopard through the vent of his dressing room, causing him to run out like a shot!
4. The African Queen (1951)
Based on the novel by C.S. Forester, The African Queen not only marks Katharine’s first color production, but it's often considered to be her first foray into “middle-aged” roles. Set in 1914, the film stars Kate as Rose Sayer, a British missionary stationed in a small village in German East Africa with her brother, Samuel. Their only source of mail and supplies comes courtesy of Canadian expatriate Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart in an Oscar-winning performance) and his small steam boat, The African Queen.
The Sayers’ peaceful ministry is suddenly destroyed when World War I breaks out, making them British citizens living in an enemy colony. The German soldiers quickly destroy their village and round up the locals to use as soldiers. When Charlie and his boat are finally able to return with supplies, he finds Rose alone in an empty village, her brother having already died from a combination of fever and heartbreak.
Rather than leave her alone, Charlie offers to take her with him, but Rose has more dangerous plans. Rather than simply leaving, she wants to help the British win the war against the Germans while she’s still in enemy territory. She’s devised a plan to turn the African Queen into a torpedo boat and blast the Germans’ key gunboat out of the water. It’s an insane idea that would require them to not only navigate treacherous waters, but also sneak right past a well-armed German fort. Charlie is sure she’ll eventually give up on this plan as they travel on, but Rose is not a woman who gives up easily.
Directed and co-written by John Huston, the majority of The African Queen was filmed on location in Uganda and the Congo. However, any scenes that required the actors to actually get into the water were filmed in England due to the dangers of exposure. Despite that precaution however, most of the cast and crew fought various illnesses throughout the African shoot, including dysentery, malaria, and even appendicitis.
Both Bogart and Huston were spared from sickness by existing solely on imported whiskey and scotch, therefore avoiding the contaminated drinking water. Kate wasn’t quite so lucky. Disapproving of Bogart and Huston’s drinking habits, she had vowed to drink only water in order to maintain a level head. This plan backfired terribly when she contracted dysentery (at one point, she was forced to throw up into a bucket in between takes).
5. Holiday (1938)
Directed by Kate’s frequent collaborator, George Cukor, Holiday is actually a remake of the lesser-known 1930 film of the same name, itself based on the play by Philip Barry (who would later go on to write The Philadelphia Story). This heartfelt romantic comedy reteams Katharine with her Bringing Up Baby co-star, Cary Grant, and fans of their later work in The Philadelphia Story will likely enjoy this movie, as well.
Grant stars as Johnny Case, a hardworking man who has just gotten engaged to the beautiful Julia Seton after experiencing a whirlwind courtship over Christmas vacation. When the two return home to announce their engagement to Julia’s family, Johnny is shocked to discover that his new fiancée is actually extremely rich. While Johnny is immediately accepted by Julia’s down-to-earth sister Linda (Katharine) and her long-suffering brother Ned (Lew Ayres), her father Edward is not so easily convinced. He has very firm ideas about what his future son-in-law should do with his life and what Julia’s lifestyle should be. But, it turns out that Johnny already has plans of his own and his plans are not exactly what Mr. Seton or Julia had in mind.
Originally, Holiday was meant to reunite Grant with his Awful Truth co-star, Irene Dunne, but Cukor decided that Katharine would be a better fit. At the time, casting Kate was a big risk since she was considered to be “box-office poison” by the major studios. But, Katharine was very familiar with the role of Linda. She had understudied the role on Broadway and even performed a scene from Holiday for her very first Hollywood screen test. Of course, Katharine and Grant sparkle in this movie, showcasing the chemistry that made their screen partnerships so memorable. A playful movie with great characters, this is a film about the virtues of being childish and the importance of living life to the fullest.
6. Stage Door (1937)
Loosely based on the stage play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, Stage Door focuses on the lives of a group of struggling stage actresses living in a New York City boarding house. Katharine stars as Terry, a girl from a wealthy upper class family who has taken it upon herself to become an actress, despite the fact that she has no experience whatsoever. The boarding house featured in Stage Door is based on the real-life Rehearsal Club, a residence in New York founded especially for professional women of the theatre.
This intelligent film features an amazing group of talented female stars, including Eve Arden, a young Lucille Ball, and a 14-year-old Ann Miller. (Miller actually lied about her age to get cast, even using a fake birth certificate.) But, the real standout (besides Katharine) is Ginger Rogers as Terry’s world-weary roommate, Jean. Rogers gives a scene-stealing and hilarious performance that marked a major turning point in her career as a straight actress.
Behind the scenes, director Gregory La Cava encouraged the actresses to ad lib, while the screenwriters actually listened to the girls joking during rehearsals and incorporated their style of speaking into the film, as well. This naturalistic approach definitely paid off in Stage Door’s fast-paced and cutting dialogue.
7. Summertime (1955)
Directed and co-written by David Lean, Summertime tells the story of Jane Hudson (Katharine), a middle-aged secretary from Ohio who is fulfilling her lifelong dream to visit Venice, Italy. But, as an unmarried woman traveling alone, Jane starts to feel lonely watching the romantic couples that surround her. Although it’s not too late for Jane to have the Italian romance she’s always dreamed of, it may not play out the way she imagined.
This bittersweet romantic film is based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents. The play was written specifically for Shirley Booth (TV’s Hazel), who won a Tony for her performance as Jane. Booth was going to reprise her role for the film, but the studio decided she was too old for the role, so the part went to Kate.
Filmed entirely on location in Venice, Summertime acts as a virtual love letter to the ancient city. However, the Italian government was initially reluctant to allow Lean to film in Venice during the summer season, out of fear that the shoot would negatively affect the income of local businesses (particularly gondoliers) during the height of the tourist season.
Lean was finally given permission to film after United Artists agreed to give a sizable donation to finance the restoration of St. Mark’s Basilica. Lean also had to promise the Basilica’s cardinal (the Patriarch of Venice) that none of the cast or crew would be seen wearing short dresses or bare arms around the city’s holy sites. Summertime was later cited as Lean’s personal favorite out of his films and tourism to Venice exploded after the film’s release.
Entirely dependent on the power of Katharine’s charm, this film unfortunately left Kate with an unwanted souvenir. While filming a scene that required her to fall into the canal, Kate contracted an infection in her eyes due to her time spent in the polluted water. The infection ended up turning into a rare form of conjunctivitis that plagued Kate for the rest of her life.
8. On Golden Pond (1981)
The most recent film on this list, On Golden Pond also marks Katharine’s very last Oscar-winning performance. Based on the play by Ernest Thompson and adapted by him for the screen, the film tells the story of Ethel (Kate) and Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda), an aging couple who have returned to their beloved lakeside cottage for the summer, as they've done many times before.
But, Norman is starting to show the signs of senility and the knowledge of his own mortality immediately puts a damper on their vacation. In the hopes of brightening things up, Ethel invites their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) to the cabin for Norman’s 80th birthday. Chelsea and Norman’s relationship has always been a bit estranged, but out of love for her mother, Chelsea stops by the cabin. Only she doesn’t come alone; Chelsea also drags along her boyfriend Bill and his 13-year-old son Billy.
As it turns out, Chelsea and Bill already have a vacation of their own planned and they hoped that Billy could stay at the cabin with the Thayers until they return. Surprisingly, both Ethel and Norman agree to take in Billy for the summer, an arrangement that Billy isn’t too happy about. Despite the odds, this 13-year-old boy and cantankerous 80-year-old man may be able to find common ground.
A moving film about aging and mending relationships while you still can, On Golden Pond’s two supreme stars elevate the material more than any screenwriter could dream. Henry Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance would be his last as the actor was quite ill during filming.
Shockingly, Kate and Henry had never even met before filming began, but soon discovered they had a great number of friends in common. On the first day of shooting, Kate presented Fonda with a brown fedora that belonged to Spencer Tracy (his “lucky hat”) that he could wear throughout the film. Fonda was so touched by the gesture that he painted a watercolor of the three hats he wears in the movie and gave it to Hepburn.
He also had lithograph copies of the painting made to hand out to everyone else who worked on the film (each numbered and with a personalized thank you from Fonda). After Fonda’s death, Kate ended up giving the original painting to Ernest Thompson (the film's screenwriter and original playwright). She found that the painting reminded her of both Fonda and Tracy and it was too much to bear.
9. Little Women (1933)
Based on the beloved 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, this adaptation of the timeless coming-of-age story was actually the very first sound version ever made. Set in Concord, Massachusetts, around the time of the Civil War, Little Women follows the lives of the four March sisters as they grow from young girls to women, experiencing great love and great tragedy along the way. Katharine plays the second oldest March sister, Jo, a vivacious tomboy, not unlike Katharine’s real-life younger self.
Directed by George Cukor, the entire production of Little Women was painstakingly authenticated. Costumes, furnishings, and household appliances were heavily researched for historical accuracy. The reason for this was no doubt due to the un-credited involvement of producer David O. Selznick (who would later go on to produce Gone With The Wind). Even the interior of the March home was directly based on author Louisa May Alcott’s Massachusetts home. Katharine actually added to the authenticity by requesting that costume designer Walter Plunkett recreate of one of her grandmother’s actual Civil War-era dresses for Jo. (Naturally, he agreed.)
In the end, Little Women took a year to film and cost close to a million dollars to produce. Luckily, the film was massively successful, earning over a $100,000 in its first week alone, with some schools even adopting it as part of their curriculum.
10. State of the Union (1948)
Naturally, this list wouldn't be complete without including one of the films featuring Kate opposite her most frequent co-star, Spencer Tracy. Directed by the great Frank Capra, State of the Union is unusual for a Tracy and Hepburn movie in that it is really more of a drama than a comedy. It’s also notable for being the only film Capra ever made for MGM (done primarily to allow him to cast Tracy, an MGM contract player).
Based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, State of the Union stars Tracy as Grant Matthews, an aircraft tycoon who has been estranged from his wife Mary (Katharine) for some time. Officially separated for over four months, Grant has been carrying on an affair with Republican newspaper magnate, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury). Ambitious to a fault, Kay hopes to use her paper’s influence to get Grant nominated as the Republican candidate for President. In reality, Grant has never even considered politics, but Kay convinces him that the country needs “a man like him.”
For the sake of appearances, Mary is brought in for the campaign and to everyone’s surprise actually encourages Grant on his bid for presidency. However, Mary expects Grant to stick to his convictions throughout his campaign, while Kay and Republican strategist Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) encourage him to shy away from his more controversial ideas in order to secure a nomination. This all causes Mary to worry: if Grant compromises his beliefs too much over the course of his campaign, will there be any of her husband left by the end of it?
State of the Union centers around the timeless issue of political corruption. The character of Grant Matthews was based in large part on Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie, who famously held many of the internationalist beliefs that Grant spouts throughout the film He was also known for his ongoing extramarital affair with New York Herald Tribune editor, Irita Van Doren.
Originally, Claudette Colbert was to play the part of Mary. However, clashes between her and Capra resulted in her leaving the production. Kate was cast only days before filming, but since she was actually helping Tracy learn his lines, she was already quite familiar with the script.
Honorable Mention: Woman of the Year (1942)
And of course, how could I finish my Katharine Hepburn Top Ten without mentioning the film that introduced Kate to the undisputed love of her life and most celebrated screen partner, Spencer Tracy? The couple became one of Hollywood’s most famous love affairs, eventually appearing in nine films together, and it all started with this movie.
Woman of the Year is, quite simply, a romantic comedy in the best “when opposites attract” tradition. Kate plays Tess Harding, an international affairs correspondent and dyed-in-the-wool career woman. Tracy plays Sam Craig, a sports journalist and straightforward man’s man. Both work for the New York Chronicle, which means that it’s just a matter of time before they cross paths.
Despite the extreme differences in their interests and lifestyles, Sam and Tess unexpectedly fall in love and are wed soon afterwards. But, once they’re married, problems start to erupt, particularly concerning Tess’ unyielding commitment to her work. Although Sam appreciates Tess’ ambition, he begins to wonder what really is more important to her: their marriage or living up to her title as “Woman of the Year.”
Katharine’s close friend, Garson Kanin, wrote the original outline for Woman of the Year, while his brother, Michael Kanin, and Ring Larder, Jr. wrote the actual script (with Kate also contributing along the way). Since Katharine was the one who brought the script to MGM, she was given first choice of director and co-star: choosing George Stevens and Tracy, respectively. Although Kate hadn't met Tracy before, she'd wanted to work with him for quite awhile.
She actually chose George Stevens to direct over her good friend (and frequent collaborator) George Cukor, specifically to make the set more pleasant for Tracy. While Cukor was known for being primarily a woman’s director, Stevens had a reputation as a man’s man and therefore someone Kate believed Tracy would relate to better. “I just thought he should have a big manly man on his team, someone who could talk about baseball.”
Although famous today, at the time Tracy and Hepburn’s romance was kept tightly under wraps by the studio out of respect for Tracy’s wife. Normally, the studio would've discouraged such a love affair from ever taking place, but Kate proved to be such a stabilizing influence on Tracy—especially concerning his battle with alcoholism—that their relationship was allowed to continue without interference.
If you would like to learn more about the one and only Katharine Hepburn, you can check out Katharine’s autobiography, Me: The Stories of My Life (1991), as well as, the book Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic (2012) by Jean Druesdow.
© 2015 Lindsay Blenkarn